All Blacks aim to end 24 years of pain
AUCKLAND, 22 Oct. - Twenty four years on from the inaugural Rugby World Cup Final in 1987, New Zealand and France return to Eden Park on Sunday to play out the Final of RWC 2011.
For New Zealand, it is the opportunity to end nearly a quarter of a century of near misses and unexpected slip ups and join Australia and South Africa as two-time winners of the Webb Ellis Cup.
"Everyone can't wait to wake up on game day and feel the buzz that is in the air and excitement around town,” New Zealand scrum half Piri Weepu said.
“You can feel the energy. You go down to breakfast and look on the faces of the boys and see the excitement on their faces."
For France, it is the chance to finally get their hands on a trophy they have twice seen slip through their grasp with defeat in the Finals of 1987 and 1999.
"We will try to write French history," France wing Vincent Clerc said. "It is not easy but we have the tools. You can never predict what will happen.
Pool stage win
"There is nothing better than a World Cup Final. It is the summit."
For the second time in successive Rugby World Cups the last game is the repeat of a match from the pool stages.
In 2007 South Africa beat England 36-0 at the Stade de France in Paris, before the sides returned to the venue for the Final, which The Springboks won 15-6. This year New Zealand ran in five tries at Eden Park to beat France 37-17.
Despite their win in the pool stages, Graham Henry’s side are well aware of the history between the two sides.
They may well have gone 27 matches unbeaten at Eden Park, but France were the last team to win there. Les Bleus wrapped up the two match series in 1994 to win at the venue with a 23-20 victory thanks to a last minute end-to-end try from full back Jean-Luc Sadourny.
"You have to expect the unexpected with them,” Weepu said. “On their day they can play the best rugby of their lives and this is the opportunity for them to do that.
“They can be quite dangerous, so we are definitely not taking them too lightly and we know it is going to be a pretty physical encounter."
In recent World Cup matches, it is the French who have had the edge. They came back to win 43-31 in the 1999 semi-finals at Twickenham and then repeated the trick in the 2007 quarter-finals to win 20-18.
The only other time they have met was in RWC 2003 bronze medal match, which the All Blacks won 40-13.
Rookie fly halves
Even so, France have come under fire for the way they have arrived in the Final.
While New Zealand have cut a swathe through the tournament, Marc Lièvremont's team have come under fire for their pragmatic game plan of kicking for territory and relying on the boot of Morgan Parra to score points in the 9-8 semi-final win over Wales.
"It is incredible,” number 8 Imanol Harinordoquy said. “We lost two pool matches and in the (quarter-final) match against the English we rose to the challenge.
“We probably should not have won against the Welsh but we did and here we are. This is our journey, our history, and we need to believe in our own destiny."
Both sides have stayed with the same teams that finished victorious in the semi-finals. As such, France continue with the experiment of playing two scrum halves in Dimitri Yachvili and Morgan Parra, with the latter starting at fly half for only the fifth time in his international career.
His opposite number is another rookie. Aaron Cruden only came into the squad after star player Dan Carter injured his groin, but has played with a relaxed assurance that belies the fact that the Final will be only his ninth international cap.
Meanwhile Richie McCaw will captain New Zealand for the 66th time and such was his performance in the semi-final win over Australia that talk of his injured foot was soon forgotten.
"I saw him play against the Australians and he was rumoured to be unfit, but he did not show any great difficulty,” France second row Lionel Nallet said. “It seems he is in tip-top form."
Regardless of what happens on Sunday, both sides are likely to start their next international Test with a different coach.
Philippe Saint-Andre has already been chosen to succeed Lièvremont after the tournament, while Henry is widely expected to step down after eight years in the All Blacks hot seat.
So this RWC 2011 Final is likely to represent one last chance for Henry to well and truly bury the ghosts of Cardiff in 2007.
“I’ve got two boys and a daughter and they were all in Cardiff in 2007,” Henry said.”The two boys arrived on the Friday night for the finals and 24 hours later it was all over. That meeting on the Sunday morning of that group of people was a very emotional time, a really emotional time.
“I’m just hoping we can get together on Sunday night and things might be a wee bit different.”